Research Points: Optical Mixing and Effects



Georges Seurat ( 1859-1891)

Seated Boy with Straw Hat Georges Seurat

Seated Boy with Straw Hat
Georges Seurat


Seurat spent two years dedicated to developing his skill of black and white drawing around 1880-1882. He concentrated on tone and light in these drawings and often omitted lines to delineate areas, instead using marks built up to show dark against light.  This is particularly prevalent in “The Black Bow” or “The Black Knot” (1882), in conte crayon on paper, see link below:

Maybe these were his embryonic thoughts to using such mark marking with colour and tone in his subsequent paintings? In Seurat’s first large-scale painting, “Bathers at Asnieres” (1884) – National Gallery, he did not use Pointillism but similar mark making techniques to the drawings are apparent.  Even here, Seurat has not used broad sweeps of colour but smaller marks.  This painting depicts a bright summer’s day, the colours used are light and fresh, the shadows although cooler, are not cold but convey a subtle shade.  the darkest colours, eg the boots, trousers and hat are a rich deep brown, they still show the bright light of the sun.

Women by the Water 1885-6 Georges Seurat

Women by the Water 1885-6
Georges Seurat

In “Women by the Water” (1885-6) Oil on Wood 15.7x25cm shows Seurat using Pointillism with broken dots and dashes of colour but still following tonality and light. The colours are more intricate because of this,  compared to the “Bathers at Asnieres”, where colour appears simplified.  There are nuances of colour both in the light and dark tones, if not generally. This painting is best viewed at a short distance away,  the eye then “joins the dots” and gives, what looks disjointed close up, a recognisable image.


“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette” 1884 – there are many reproductions of this painting and many I have seen seem to be made of many coloured dots (ie Pointillism), in their entirety, however, looking at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I notice the multitude of short dash like marks over the majority of the painting. The grassy shadows have dashes of blue/green/orange//yellow which give the ground movement. There is similar treatment in the trees which really evokes the dappled sunlight and gently summer breeze.  It transpires that Seurat added the dots towards the completion of the painting, along with a dotted border. This border follows the tones of the painting where it touches, being darker over the trees, down along the grass shadows and lightens towards the water where the sun hits.  By laying complimentary colours alongside each other, he gives crisp colours a lively movement, for example the blues in the grassy shadow against the orange of the daisies.  He as also used colours close on the spectrum to give a variation in tone and mix colours, there is a lot of red and blue which interpreted as a violet/plum colour in many of the clothes.

Paul Signac (1863-1935)

A contemporary of Georges Seurat, Signac was intrigued by Seurat’s working methods and went on to help in the development of Pointillism.  I have to admit that I am not overly familiar with Signac’s work – possibly because he was eclipsed by Seurat? Seurat’s life was cut very short and maybe the more celebrated because of that – I don’t know.

I have found some paintings of Signac’s that particularly appeal to me:

Capo Di Noli (1896)

A coastal view from a cliff path which sings with colour. Allegedly not the actual colours but the colours the scene evoked in the artist’s mind’s eye.  It’s again as with Seurat, tonally working yet has a clean-cut vibrancy that comes from not mixing colour on the palette but with the eye.  In the detail of the attached link, the complimentary colours are lifting each other above the bland and really give a sense of the hot Mediterranean sun.

Complat le Chateau, Le Pre (1886)

Complat le Chateau, Le Pre 1886 Paul Signac

Complat le Chateau, Le Pre 1886
Paul Signac


This meadow scene reduces my initial thoughts to dust! I was beginning to think that this method was best used to describe strong Mediterranean sunlight – however, although the sun is still strong here, it has a hazier, Northern European feel. the dominance of blues in varying shades and tones gives a unifying effect and although the  shadows are distinct, it still feels close to midday sun.  I almost need to shield my eyes from the glare.



Grand Canal, Venice (1905)

Grand Canal, Venice 1905 Paul Signac

Grand Canal, Venice 1905
Paul Signac


This is a beautiful painting that brings to mind the onset of dusk in Venice – something I have witnessed and is magical, the history, lapping of the water and soft glow as the city begins its night-time illumination of dark canals. This took me right back there. If this isn’t colour evoking mood, I don’t know what it. the last of the sun glancing off the Basilica makes it appear alight.



Both Seurat and Signac had a method, technique, process – call it what you will. They worked from sketches and colour studies and painstakingly experimented with the juxtaposition of colours to give the right look, feel and atmosphere to their paintings. However, this is a labour of love – it had to be, whether it’s the love of the process itself or the finished article, I’m not sure. It took at least one or two years for each final painting and all done in the studio – it is therefore, even more astounding that the finished works are so fresh, vibrant and compelling.


Ops Artists

Victor Vasarely 1906-1997

Op Art is a phrase coined by Time Magazine in 1964 in specific relation to Julian Stanczak’s exhibition

Zebra 1938 Victor Visarely

Zebra 1938
Victor Visarely

of abstract paintings that used optical illusions as their focus called Optical Paintings. Artists had previously been exploring this concept much before the phrase came about. One of these being Victor Vasarely. Vasarely’s famous Zebra 1938 is a motif he revisited in several guises over the years. Prior to the 1960s-70s, he seemed to work mostly in black and white and then created amazingly elaborate and precise abstract paintings using colour as well as shape for his creations.  Attached is a link to his website that has since been created, showing the timeline of Vasarely’s work and journey – he manages to convey a wildness together with a restraint and control.

For me, these are interesting shapes and colours and I found his planning and painting “maps” intriguing but devoid of any feeling, seemingly clinical. I enjoyed the spherical pattern and line bending of the Vega Period more than most as these were as organic as they got. I will park this and re-examine at some point when maybe my understanding of abstract/optical art improves – not in the diary yet thought.

Bridget Riley 1931-

London born Bridget Riley divides her time between Cornwall, London and Vaucluse in France. A name I know of yet not am not particularly familiar with her work.  Again, I hit against my abstract art brick wall. Having perused some of Riley’s works on-line, these are a few that I was taken with:

Cataract 3 1967

An interesting name! The colours and design seemed more unremarkable until I enlarged the image – it completely came alive and made me compare it to a flag waving in the wind – albeit in a uniform way. The colour-ways help with this –  moving from black/blue & white to red/blue/white and back again.

Shadow Play 1990

Looking at this, I was a little lost, then I began to see it changing before me in planes and angles. I again enlarged it on my lap top and being a plasma-type screen, the imprints of circles from my fingers seemed to add even more to it.

Movement in Squares 1961

I have seen this before and is more obviously an optical illusion. I notice that it is made with Tempera on board, which seems an unusual choice – it would be good to understand these choices with such a concept.

Blaze Study 1962

As soon as I stray into realms of zigzags I feel uncomfortable, in fact this Optical Art is a bit of a struggle for me to really look at – particularly on a computer screen.  I think I should try to find examples to see in the flesh and see if they have the same effect.  The reason being, I am an occasional migraine sufferer and just by chance, have had a few attacks this week prior to this research.  This leads me to think that there is more than a visual effect from these works and more of a neurological impact – is this general or just me and fellow migraine-ees?? I’m all for emotional responses to works of art, I think this may just be a step too far for me.  I will seek out some exhibits just in case it is the combination of Op Art and computer screen.